Chances are, if you’ve heard anything about stress management or anxiety relief, you’ve heard about deep breathing. Maybe you’re familiar with the fact that you can use deep breathing both to calm yourself when you’re feeling upset and as a regular practice for bringing your overall stress level down. Maybe you’ve even tried it a few times. But maybe you also only remember that deep breathing could have helped you after an intense moment is over. Perhaps you just forget that deep breathing is a stress management tool that’s available to you most of the time. Or perhaps you’re simply curious about why deep breathing is such a popular topic these days.
Regardless of what your previous experience is with deep breathing, you’re in the right place to explore this foundational tool for managing stress and discovering calm. In this post, we’ll walk through:
Why deep breathing?
When I was in therapy for anxiety during a particularly intense season in my life, the first task my therapist gave me was to begin practicing deep breathing. Why? Because I needed to decrease the intense physical alarm I was experiencing before I could meaningfully address the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that were triggering it. If I had tried to start with thinking my way out of my anxiety, I wouldn’t have gotten very far. My thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) had been usurped by my emotional brain (the limbic system) because something had triggered me to believe that I was in imminent danger – in my case it was relational conflict. Shifting out of that highly-activated state – both physically and emotionally – was the first step. The second would be to address the thoughts and beliefs that were behind my problematic anxiety.
To understand this more personally, consider a time when you were really upset. If there were people around you, how did they react? Did someone point out a flaw in your thinking, tell you to “just calm down!” or otherwise try to engage you in logic? Or did someone listen and empathize, let you know that your feelings were normal, or simply didn’t try to solve your problem? In either case, how did you feel in that moment? Did their comments help you calm down?
Deep breathing is just one of many ways to help calm your body and shift the balance towards calm, but it’s also possibly the most accessible. As long as you’re alive, you’re breathing, and as long as you’re conscious, you have some control over your breath. You don’t need any other supplies or props for deep breathing, and it’s not complicated to learn. There may be some instances when you’re too upset to control your breath – like if you’re sobbing or so tense that you can’t relax your diaphragm enough. These have both happened to me and, thankfully, there are other calming tools that will work in these situations, but they’re for another blog post. But much of the time, breathing is the simplest tool you have available.
Guiding your breath is also very discreet since most breath techniques will be invisible to any people around you. If you’re trying to calm some intense emotions, the last thing you’re likely to want is someone giving you a strange look or asking what you’re doing. And unlike physical poses like yoga or other mind-body integrated movements, deep breathing can be done comfortably in any space.
Deep breathing is also reasonably quick to work, though not instant. One deep breath will not take you from feeling like you’re about to lose your mind to the epitome of calm, but a solid 10 breaths (about 1 ½-2 minutes) can often do quite a lot towards that end. This is an important point to note because if you’re anything like me, a minute can seem like an eternity when your feelings are really intense. If you know that you need to get to ten breaths before you’ll notice that you’re feeling better, you’re less likely to give up after 2 or 3 even when your panicked brain is telling you it’s not working fast enough.
And finally, deep breathing is an important place to start because it can be easily paired with other techniques and tools both for calming our minds and bodies and for addressing the roots of the stress and anxiety we’re experiencing. Mind-body integrated movements, essential oils or other smells that stimulate the olfactory nerve, other self-care methods, and even the deeper inner work where we address the root causes of our stress can be easily paired with deep breathing.
It’s important to note that deep breathing and other calming tools can help our bodies and minds return to a calmer physical state, but if we continue the same stressful thought patterns that got us to that state to begin with, we’ll end up there again soon. For example, if you’re feeling tense and anxious because you’re running late, you can use deep breathing to help you calm down. However, if you don’t address the underlying beliefs that upset you in the first place, your thoughts will quickly trigger the tense and anxious feelings again. In this example, perhaps you believe (maybe not even consciously) that running late means you’re letting someone down, and letting someone down means you’re a bad person. You need to follow up your physical calming tools with some deep mental work where you re-direct your thoughts to stop the cycle of excessive stress. In this case, perhaps after calming down with breathing, you would practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes and runs late sometimes. You might also remind yourself that running late does not make you a bad person (and in fact, is not even seen as a problem in some cultures). You might follow up your self-compassion with some actions that will help you deal with your mistake, like apologizing to the person you’ve kept waiting and planning ways to help yourself be on time the next time. Using these mental tools to guide your thoughts will keep you from spiraling back to “but I’m keeping my friend waiting and that’s terrible!” and the excessive stressful feelings those thoughts produce.
How does deep breathing work?
Breath techniques, including deep breathing, have been practiced for thousands of years including in the traditions of yoga (pranayama), Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. In addition, current scientific research also indicates that deep breathing improves both mood and the effects of of stress (1, 2).
To understand how deep breathing works physiologically, we need to understand how the stress response works in our bodies. First, it’s important to understand that stress itself is not bad or harmful and in fact can be enhancing to our bodies and minds when it’s used well. Our bodies are designed to shift from a calm state into the stress response when we perceive a threat, and for social and emotional stress, we experience stress when there’s a threat to something or someone we care about. If we didn’t care so deeply, which is a profoundly important human trait, we wouldn’t experience the stress.
For example, consider that someone, somewhere in the world is likely to have gotten a paper cut today. How do you feel about that? Now imagine that your toddler just got a paper cut and is crying in front of you. Does that change how you feel? You’re likely to feel a heightened sense of stress (remember, it’s not a bad thing) when your toddler gets a paper cut than when someone you have no connection with gets a paper cut because you deeply care for and love your toddler. As you can see, stress is actually a very important part of how our bodies and minds work. (3)
Physical, social or emotional stress becomes damaging when it begins to interfere with the overall wellbeing and functioning of our bodies and minds and when the behavior we choose in response to the stress takes us further from what we care about rather than closer. This is often the case for high levels of long-term stress, like feeling overwhelmed by a constantly-busy schedule, rather than a stress response that dissipates after a short-term situation is over, such as taking an important test. Deep breathing and other calming tools help return our bodies to the calm state after the stress response is no longer needed. These tools can also help us maintain a lower level of chronic stress in our lives when we practice them regularly while we’re not experiencing acute stress.
We can think about how the stress response works in our bodies by considering our autonomic nervous system, or ANS, which regulates several body processes, like blood pressure, digestion, and breathing rate, without our conscious effort (4). Of all the body processes that the ANS regulates, the one that we can bring under conscious control is our breath.
Our ANS has two main modes: the “rest-and-digest” mode (also called parasympathetic), which controls our bodies during ordinary situations, and the “fight-flight-or-freeze” mode (sympathetic), which prepares our bodies for stressful situations or emergencies. The vagus nerve, which begins in the brain stem and ends in the lower abdomen in the diaphragm and large intestine, is part of the “rest-and-digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system. When we intentionally breathe deeply, sending our breath down to the lower parts of our lungs, we stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve stimulation signals to our body to shift into the “rest-and-digest” (parasympathetic) state and calm down.
How exactly do I breathe deeply?
So, now that we’ve covered why deep breathing is an important foundational tool and how it works in our bodies, how exactly do you do it?
First, choose a time when you’re not feeling highly stressed or anxious to experiment and discover how deep breathing feels in your body. Find a comfortable place to sit or stand where your spine can be mostly straight. If possible, you don’t want to be hunched over, which will compact your lungs and make deep breathing more difficult.
Then, pay attention to the area just beneath your bellybutton. This is the spot you want to think of sending your breath towards. You can place a hand there, if you like, to help you focus on expanding and contracting in that lower part of your lungs.
Take a slow breath in through your nose until your lungs are comfortably filled, and let it release naturally, again through your nose. When you inhale, imagine sending the breath all the way down to those deepest parts of your lungs. Allow yourself to relax during the exhales – let your shoulders settle and allow your mind to let go. You might whisper quietly or think to yourself, “relax,” “let go, ”or another word or phrase that you find helpful. Keep this up for at least 10 breaths. Then, notice how you feel. Has anything changed? If you like, keep going for another 10 breaths, and again check in with how you’re feeling.
You can use this breathing technique in the moments when you’re feeling stressed or anxious as well. The key is that you must first notice that you’re feeling upset, and then remember to use this tool to help you feel better. A simple self-awareness practice like this one can help you develop your ability to recognize when you’re in an overly-stressed state, and regular breathing practice when you’re not feeling upset can help you remember to use deep breathing when you do feel stressed. At the end of this article, I’ve provided a simple, step-by-step guide to practicing deep breathing over the next week so you can begin to make it a go-to tool when you’re feeling overly stressed.
One thing to note when you’re feeling upset: it might take several breaths to relax enough to send the breath down toward your bellybutton rather than having it stay mostly in your chest. This is totally normal since chest breathing is part of the typical physiological stress response, like we talked about earlier. You might consider doing more than one set of 10 breaths in this case, or using another tool first.
So far, we’ve been discussing the basic idea of breathing deeply into the lower part of your lungs, but there are specific breath techniques that build on this idea as well, including controlling the length of the inhale and exhale, holding the breath for a number of counts, breathing through one nostril at a time, and others. One of my favorites, in the video below, is the Long Exhale.
The Long Exhale
The Long Exhale is a deep breathing technique where you simply make your exhale longer than your inhale. For example, you might breathe in for 3 slow counts and out for 6, like in the video below. I’ve found the Long Exhale particularly helpful for calming my mind and body to get ready for sleep, and I also like to use it while driving since it’s extra simple and completely hands-off. Follow along with me to try it out for yourself in the video!
A simple plan for practice
It’s wonderful that you’re reading this article, learning all about deep breathing and even trying out the Long Exhale with me in the video above. But we can have tons of knowledge about tools that we know help us feel better and yet never experience their benefits if we don’t actually use them in our daily lives. Practicing the tools, even (especially?) when we’re feeling just fine, helps us both to experience their longer-term benefits and to remember to pull them out in those moments of intense stress.
Practicing is also the hardest part. Learning information about something is usually a finite, contained activity, but practicing takes consistency and perseverance. One way to help ourselves succeed at doing something new, especially forming a new habit, is to make it ridiculously easy and simple. (For further reading about this, I suggest The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor and Atomic Habits by James Clear.)
If you want to try out deep breathing in your daily life – and see if it’s something you want to make a habit – follow this path to set up a simple plan.
Deep breathing can be a powerful tool to guide us on the path towards calm. As we’ve seen, it has the advantage of being simple and accessible and works by helping signal to our body to turn off the stress response and turn on calm. I’d love to hear how your exploration of deep breathing helps you along in your discovery of calm!
Based also on material from:
my training at the Well-Grounded Institute
The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor (Amazon affiliate link*)
Atomic Habits, by James Clear (Amazon affiliate link*)
*The above Amazon affiliate links mean that, at no cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.